The Cul De Sac of Self-Delusion – A Year After Indyref

This was my Facebook status on the morning of 18th September 2014:

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I wasn’t going to write anything about the anniversary of the referendum as I’ve written at length about the result, the sad collapse of much of the left into nationalism, the nationalist myths which have firmly taken hold and the left’s delusions about the SNP. I even wrote in December, only 2 months after the vote, about how my prediction in that status was quickly being shown to be true. There seems little more to add but a couple of things I’ve read today made me want to put down a few thoughts. Both pieces, I think, clearly show the predicted ‘cul de sac of self-delusion’.

The first is this statement from RISE, the new ‘left alliance’ in Scotland which professes to represent Respect, Independence, Socialist and Environmentalism, on the election of Jeremy Corbyn. RISE is, apparently, a ‘people’s movement’ based in ‘discussion and dialogue’ – yet not if you’re a supporter of Scottish Labour, it seems. The statement drips with glee at the ‘historic meltdown’ which has seen Labour rapidly decline in Scotland, with most of its support going to the SNP which, as Colin Kidd argues here:

…did not so much topple Labour as impersonate it. But the situation is more complicated still. The SNP had for decades courted old-style Liberals in small towns and the rural peripheries, and more recently has also won the votes of disorientated Scottish Tories, impressed by the SNP’s unfussy competence as a minority government between 2007 and 2011. As a result, the SNP currently occupies virtually the whole bandwidth of Scottish politics, unionism included.

As has been typical of the left, RISE seems positively joyful at this rearranging of the chairs. Its statement presents Scottish Labour as fundamentally broken, going to pains to separate it from UK Labour under Corbyn (an interesting move given the pro-indy movement’s fixation on Johann Lamont’s comments that Scottish Labour was treated as a ‘branch office’ by the leadership in London). It asserts:

The vast majority of progressive opinion in Scotland has rejected both austerity and the Westminster set up which is imposing it at the behest of the big business and the bankers. These voters back both socialist answers to the crisis and the independent Scotland we need to implement them.

This is typical of the delusions which comfort the left in Scotland. Voters opting for austerity imposed by the SNP rather than the Conservatives is presented as a wholesale ‘rejection’ of austerity. This is also bizarrely presented as support for ‘socialist answers to the crisis’. Current polls for next year’s Holyrood election have the SNP on over 50% of both constituency and regional vote, with some having it above 60%. The socialist parties, on the other hand, hover between 0%-3%. Even if you generously include the Greens, this amounts to less than 10% support for parties clearly to the left of the SNP – a very strange support for socialism indeed.

It’s notable that the mention of socialism is very quickly followed by a mention of independence. This is new paradigm of Scottish politics, the prism through which everything must be viewed. We saw as much in the SNP’s spectacularly crass statement, issued within seconds of Corbyn’s victory, setting him up to fail and presenting such a failure as a pathway to independence. It underlined that constitutional issues remain the central reason for the SNP’s existence, even if its mention of Trident (one of the only issues it has credibly been able to outflank Labour on from the left) attempted to obscure the fact. Corbyn’s response to this highlighted the gap between the SNP’s rhetoric and its actual record in power:

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Rather than face the reality that almost all of the electoral benefits of the pro-independence referendum fallout have been captured by the SNP, RISE smugly asserts that the movement Corbyn wants to build “is not possible to develop…around the Labour Party.” The unspoken remainder of that assertion is ‘because it does not support independence’. As the RISE statement shows, independence in itself continues to be presented as inherently progressive, inevitably leading to better things.

This is also the case in a Bella Caledonia piece marking the referendum anniversary. This begins with an entirely not-nationalist appeal to a quote from 1935 asserting that the “Celtic fringe” is always opposed in attempting to build nationhood. This not-nationalist rhetoric rests on the continuing myth that there is something fundamentally different about people in Scotland compared to the evil oppressors in England (the ‘Celtic identity’ is a modern invention – this is very good on that) and also the collapsing of everyone in Scotland into the pro-independence camp. You cannot, after all, continue to contrast ‘Scotland’ with the wickedness of the ‘UK’ if you recognise that Scotland is not a homogenous mass of opinion.

Yet, hilariously, BC immediately moves on to attack the “absence of self-awareness, the lack of history, the shallowness of empty promises” of Better Together. Of course it does. Better Together has, with the ‘Red Tories’, ‘Westmonster’ and ‘unionists’ come to represent all that is wicked in the binary world of the nationalists. Rather than just being a bit of a rubbish (at times offensively so) campaign, it is now a byword for “lies distortion and fear”, contrasted with the ‘hope’, ‘ideas’ and ‘vision’ of the Yes movement (the white paper’s corporation tax cut really carries a lot).

Despite a claim that “Self-criticism is key to building a stronger Yes 2.0” the piece is resplendent in the worst aspects of the ‘Yes movement’ – aspects which have become absolutely central. It lists ‘Proud Scots but’ amongst the enemies of independence, insidiously conflating national pride with support for independence. It asserts that, rather than wait, the Yes movement should “begin to build the institutions, structures and projects” crucial to make its case. This has been the mantra of the ‘it’s not about the SNP’ left for the past two years – when exactly are they planning to start?

It heaps every problem of the political system, every flaw in every politician, onto the back of ‘unionists’, as if pro-independence politicians are saintly (and Sturgeon didn’t lie about, for example, Labour ‘signing up to £30 billion of cuts). I doubt many sympathetic to Bella Caledonia’s aims will bat an eyelid at a sentence as lazily sinister as “the Unionist side will always have the might of the propaganda machine behind them”. That, as someone who doesn’t support independence, he will have ‘the might of the propaganda machine’ behind him will certainly be news to Jeremy Corbyn, who has been subjected to a swift media mauling in his first week as leader. It will be news to him that he is “inexorably tied” to the House of Lords and the monarchy, both aspects of the constitution on which he is far more radical than the SNP.

Yet it’s one of the founding myths of the modern Yes movement that the evil media lies about noble independence. BC writes:

As we look back we can see the Project Fear as a form of inoculation against British propaganda. Having been exposed to a small amount of the virus, next time we will be immune.

This sounds positively unhinged yet it’s typical of a significant body of opinion. All those pesky questions about the currency, pensions, national debt, energy, oil, defence etc – they are reduced to a ‘virus’, dismissed as not worth bothering with. As I wrote the day after the referendum:
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It’s silly to dismiss all challenge to and criticism of the media. It’s equally silly to go to the opposite extreme and suggest that everything in the media which challenges your own view is ‘biased’ and the product of wicked unseen forces. Such thought takes us to very dangerous places indeed and closes off the possibility of serious, constructive media reform (of the type suggested by e.g. Dan Hind). This is why it is so important that Corbyn’s supporters couch their response to the media’s recent hatchet jobs in an understanding of power and interests, presenting facts and alternative views rather than retreating into hysterical shrieking about ‘propaganda’ and ‘viruses’.

The central failing of the BC article is emblematic of the most damaging cul de sac which the left has gone down. It presents “the day-to-day grind of poverty, poor housing and low wage(s)” as the product of “British governance”. It draws on a Lancet report suggesting life expectancy in Southern England is amongst the ‘best in the world’ while in Scotland it is amongst the worst, clearly continuing the narrative of poor Scotland being oppressed by the wicked, decadent ‘Southern Englanders’. Aside from completely ignoring the myriad of complex, interacting reasons for any ‘north/south divide’ (not least industrialisation and its decline) it completely avoids the massive inequalities which exist within Scotland itself. Recognising this means recognising that poverty, housing and pay are not constitutional issues but rather ones related to our economic system (something which leaps out at you in the Guardian’s reporting of the issue).

Poverty may be present, to varying degrees, in all advanced capitalist economies but we’re somehow asked to believe that the central problem for Scotland is which parliament is making which decisions. If Holyrood had some more control, it could somehow stop it. This delusion not only divides the left, suggesting that a socialist Labour led by Corbyn could never be a true ally, but also draws immense talent and energy away from the real issues of importance. Even RISE, professing to want a socialist Scotland, would rather make electoral hay by dividing people with similar views along constitutional lines than point out that independence would only defer the battles which need to be won (while presenting the working-class in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as ‘different’.)

The left has become entrenched in these cul de sacs, to the extent that I am under no illusions as to the likelihood of Jeremy Corbyn winning much of it back in Scotland. I am very sympathetic to this argument that only a vote for independence could restore some perspective to Scottish politics. In the meantime, however, I am hopeful that Corbyn will be able to expose that the independence movement is overwhelmingly built on nationalist ground, with the ‘socialism’ bit being little more than a decorative afterthought to make it seem more appealing. Then, at least, the self-delusion will be exposed.

The Demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Repeats Itself

Jeremy Corbyn Post-crash politics may at times have been so bleak as to bring me to tears but it’s certainly not been dull. The financial crisis of 2008 briefly seemed to offer exciting opportunities for the left yet it quickly became obvious that the overriding response of elites was ‘let’s get back to normal asap’. Many are convinced we’ve done this, with the surprise Tory victory in May confirming that the ‘status quo’ was back in business. However there’s been a palpable sense of papering over the cracks, of those in power (across the establishment) sticking their fingers in their ears and saying ‘laaaaaaaaa laaaaaaaaaaaa’ very loudly. Whether it be the changing fortunes of the various political parties, the fragile economic ‘recovery’, the crisis in the European Union or the increased visibility of grassroots groups such as Focus E15, there’s been a real sense of flux; of an interregnum with no clear end in sight. The current storm (if it can be called that) around Jeremy Corbyn feels perfectly at home in this context. If you live in the UK and follow politics, it can’t have escaped your attention that the demonisation of Corbyn is in full swing. Ever since Yougov released a poll putting Corbyn in first place of the Labour leadership election, those who want to pretend that we’re ‘back to normal’ have been going feral. The Guardian in particular has been dismally hilarious with their endless attack pieces:

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I don’t need to write how utterly absurd most of this is – many others have already eloquently done so. I did, however, want to write a few words about some of the stock responses the Labour right (exemplars of the ‘carry on as normal’ crew) have offered in response to Corbyn’s rise. Much of them are encapsulated in this truly terrible piece by Robert Priest, finger-wagging at the left for being out-of-touch with the electorate. Most people, he argues, aren’t particularly left-wing, although they are ‘surely to the left of the Conservative frontbench on many issues’. We are, it seems, in that ever mythical ‘centre-ground’ which the Labour right are absolutely obsessed with. Priest uses data from the British Social Attitude survey to make this argument. The following paragraph leapt out at me:

Most pressing for the Left is the big picture: the proportion of people in favour of higher taxation and spending has collapsed from 63 per cent to just 37 per cent in the ten years from 2004 to 2014. Support for welfare spending has plummeted. Those who remember Blair-era clichés about a ‘social-democratic majority’ should consider whether they still stand up to scrutiny.

It’s true that the proportion supporting higher tax and welfare spending has been in ‘long-term’ decline. Yet if we take an even longer view, the picture isn’t quite so clear-cut: Evil_EyesSupport for increasing taxes and spending more actually rose between ’83 and plateaued around ’91/’92 before beginning its (shaky) decline. If we look at this graph in 10 year increments, it’s clear that public opinion on this question can vary enormously in relatively short periods of time. The BSA argues that this variation may match public spending – ie when the Thatcher government was cutting spending, support for more spending rose and the converse under New Labour – but this seems too pat:

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We can see, for example, that support for more tax/spending rose in ’90/’91 while public spending was rising, and decreased betwen ’98-’00 when public spending was still falling. We’ve also not seen any marked increase in recent support despite public spending falling since 2010. What we can take away from this, then, is that a) public opinion is fluid and not easily explained and so therefore, b) there is no such thing as a fixed ‘centre’ of opinion. It seems fair to surmise that government and wider politics plays a role in shaping public opinion; it also seems certain that the media plays a big role here. This seems to be underlined by this infamous study which found that the  ‘British public (are) wrong about nearly everything’. It cannot be a coincidence that opinion on matters like teenage pregnancy, immigration and welfare closely echoes the misconceptions advanced by our largely right-wing media (and indeed government). This is why one of the key arguments of the Labour right, that “we must start by meeting the voters where they are, not where we would like them to be“, is a nonsense. This means making policy on the basis of opinion which is both fluid and often misinformed.

It’s notable, of course, that this argument is always deployed to defend reinforcing negative stereotypes about welfare and immigration rather than, say, supporting renationalisation or taxing wealth. In the latter cases public opinion is seen as complex, changing or just plain wrong (see also Priest’s attempts to parse public opinion on abolishing tuition fees). Right-wing public opinion, however, is presented as immutable. So we end up with the absurdity of Labour leadership candidates supporting clampdowns on ‘welfare migrants’ despite it being based almost entirely on misinformation and ignorance as to its actual impact. Similarly, Labour’s capitulation to the welfare bill was based largely on public ignorance, whether that be with regards to the ‘benefit cap’ (which doesn’t save much money and makes people poorer) or welfare spending overall (increase over past 35 years is overwhelmingly due to pensions, approx. 31% of spending goes to older people as opposed to 3.6% to the unemployed/those on low incomes and it’s not out of line with comparable economies). I don’t even have to go into how far from any reality our immigration ‘debate’ is.

The Labour right, then, would have us make the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens worse in order to satisfy public ignorance.This brings me to another of their favoured arguments: that if Labour don’t win an election it is “not in a position to help people in Britain”. Ironically enough, this argument betrays the kind of paternalism and lack of imagination which these people like to berate the left for. Politics and the change it delivers is not gifted from on-high by benevolent politicians – it is a constant terrain of struggle and ‘ordinary’ people fight every day to change opinion and to help each other. Public opinion on ‘equal marriage’, for example, was far ahead of our politicians, with a majority supporting it before even civil partnerships were introduced. In refusing to acknowledge the power it has as both the party of opposition and as a potential social movement, the Labour right abdicates the terrain of public opinion and perception to the right. I’m not suggesting for a moment that public ignorance re: immigration or welfare is easily addressed but imagine a passionate, vibrant Labour Party vigorously making those arguments. It would matter and it would help people. Would support for benefit spending have steadily declined over the past 30 years had New Labour not embraced the rhetoric that it was a ‘problem‘ and aimed at the feckless? Would welfare policy be as it is currently had Labour not introduced ideas like workfare, tougher sanctions and work capability assessments? Would Labour’s achievements in reducing (some) poverty be so easily reversed had it loudly made the case for a welfare state and redistribution rather than attempting to ‘redistribute by stealth’? Would we be seeing the current Tory attack on industrial rights had Labour rolled back Thatcher’s restrictions on trade union activity?

We need only look at tuition fees to see the reality of the Overton Window and Labour’s ability to actively shape public opinion – in under 20 years the debate has moved from ‘tax-funded higher education vs tuition fees’ to one on what the level of tuition fees should be, with the Labour right presenting Corbyn’s abolition policy as the politics of irresponsibility and fantasy. The great irony is that it is the attachment of the Labour right to its own fantasy which is repeating itself here. The modern Labour right is obsessed with the founding myth of Michael Foot and the ‘longest suicide note in history’. Again and again we are told that Foot (and people like Tony Benn) took Labour to the brink of destruction with their loony left-wing ideas. Yet one of the things which radicalised Benn was his discovery in office of just how little power the left had against the forces of the British establishment and global capital. The context of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ wasn’t profligate left-wing barons running wild but a global crisis in capitalism which led Labour to seek an IMF loan, with concomitant stinging cuts. Following Thatcher’s election in ’79, Labour was actually ahead in the polls: 1983graph

As you can see, Labour support actually briefly increased following Foot’s election. It then begins to decline as soon as the Labour right broke away and formed the SDP. Note that Tory support continued to decline during this period – the decline was clearly overwhelmingly due to the SDP splitting the vote. As late as April 1982, the ‘unelectable’ foot was still ahead of the Tories in the polls. That same month, the Falklands War began and the Tories experienced a massive surge in the polls – in the space of 14 days they went from being behind to having a double-digit lead, clearly the beneficiary of inflamed nationalist sentiment (where have we seen that since, I wonder?) This is now an ‘alternate history’, rarely advanced due to the dominance of the notion that Labour under Foot was irredeemable. Yet it was the Labour right who delivered the initial blow and in that sense history really is repeating itself as they obsess more over the ‘positioning’ of the party than in fighting the Conservatives and articulating a positive vision of society.

Labour has real power now and it actively harms people now when it refrains to use it in the arrogant assumption that it can only effect change when in government. I think this is a large part of why so many have been enthused by the Corbyn campaign, which seems positively exploding with energy when compared to his three competitors. It is also, ironically, the one which seems most based in reality in its refusal to bend to ignorance re: issues like welfare. There can be no doubt that Labour faces an almighty struggle to return to power and that Corbyn would face an onslaught (including from his own party) if he were leader. Yet he grasps that being in power is not a goal in itself. He grasps that what Labour does now mattersThat’s why his demonisation by the right is failing dismally and why a sense of real possibility is afoot. It is not Corbyn who is repeating the mistakes of the past.

Tickling the Tummy of Nationalism

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The boyfriend was watching The Voice the other night (yes, I know) and I caught a section where they were discussing one of the contestants who happened to be Scottish. Now, I say ‘happened to be’ but the presenters and judges mentioned it so much that you would have thought it was the most interesting and remarkable thing in the world. It’s pretty standard for these kinds of shows – Scotland is one of the ‘regions’ to be patted on the head and patronised with affection and ‘pick up the phone, Scotland!’ pleas, as if the Scottish people are a homogeneous bloc of simple folk thrilled to simply see ‘one of their own’ on the television.

The troubling thing is, it has a degree of traction. Some people are always going to like having their tummies tickled and if ‘Scottishness’ is an integral part of your identity, you might respond to this guff (and anyone who’s regularly watched shows like The Voice and X Factor will be familiar with terrible acts progressing quite far by pushing the ‘regional’ vote to its limit). The patronising ‘look at how great we are to these little people’ attitude of the ‘metropolitan’ media endures because it finds a willing audience.

This trend isn’t confined to rubbish talent shows. Days before the Scottish independence referendum vote I wrote about how much of the left in the rest of the UK had been ‘utterly clueless’ in their analyses of the debate, eagerly buying into every myth of Scottish exceptionalism and failing to seriously question the pro-independence movement in any way whatsoever. They were, in effect, tickling the tummies of those who believed that Scotland was better and largely doing so in order to demonstrate how progressive they were themselves. Of course, despite Billy Bragg’s ‘best’ efforts, few progressives are happy to be identified as nationalists, a word which is loaded with connotations of parochialism and small-mindedness. An inordinate amount of time was spent on tortured arguments as to why Scottish independence wasn’t a nationalist cause, closely tied to the ‘Green Yes’ and Radical Independence Campaign movements. This wasn’t about nation, flags or parochialism – it was about unleashing the magical progressive forces of Scotland and in the process setting free the rest of the UK. Solidarity brothers and sisters!

From the vantage point of 6 months later, it’s pretty remarkable how swiftly this rhetoric has fallen apart. This from ‘socialist’ Tommy Sheridan, urging support for the SNP, seems fairly typical:

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To say the SNP have been the main beneficiaries of the surge in nationalism-which-isn’t-nationalism since September would be an understatement. We can see the spike in their support, coinciding with the referendum, here – notice that the ‘others’ line remains flat during that period:

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Recent Westminster polls have the Scottish Greens polling around 3% – around the same as UKIP which, we are repeatedly told, is an ‘irrelevance’ in Scotland. The other parties involved in RIC like the Scottish Socialists don’t even figure. It’s true there has been a small increase in Green support in Holyrood polls over the past couple of years but an average of 9.6% in 2015 so far compared to 7.8% in 2014 isn’t earth-shattering considering the centrality of the Greens to the ‘it’s not nationalist’ argument for independence. I’m personally aware of a few people who were staunchly of the ‘Green Yes’ variety who are now planning on voting SNP; Vonny Moyes in this hilarious piece tries vainly to explain why Green and socialist voters opting for the SNP has nothing to do with nationalism…still.

The myths of Scottish exceptionalism are stronger than ever and have in fact been fed by the referendum – look at Moyes’ breathtaking assertion that Scots are now ‘fact-checking’ and (by implication) more informed than the rest of the UK, something which doesn’t bear a moment’s scrutiny and is based on nothing more than nationalists talking to themselves. These myths are feeding, and fed by, support for the SNP who have been reframed from a bog-standard centre party to something comparable to Syriza – witness Monbiot somewhat amazingly stating that support for the ‘lower corporation tax’ SNP is a sign of the end of neoliberalism. The narrative settled quickly – Labour are the ‘Red Tories’, evil allies of the Tories while the SNP are Our Only Hope.

You would think this would present a delicate tightrope for the SNP to walk. It is, after all, difficult to present yourself as a radical left-wing party when your main appeal is to Scotland’s middle-classes (see this excellent piece on how the SNP’s student finance policies hit the poor hardest) and you have supporters like Brian Souter to keep on board. It’s difficult to attack Labour for standing with the Tories on Better Together when you governed informally with the latter and frequently voted with them at Westminster. You would surely think that your radical credentials would be questioned when you not only want to reduce corporation tax but state that you would vote against any Labour proposals to raise taxes on the rich. Even Nicola Sturgeon’s vague noises on opposing austerity aren’t as hugely different from Labour’s plans as the rhetoric would have you believe.

Yet the SNP hasn’t found itself challenged whatsoever. Indeed, when the oil price collapse happened and government data on Scotland’s economy revealed a deficit bigger than rUK, they presented it as an argument as to why Scotland should be ‘masters of its own destiny’ without batting an eyelid that throughout the referendum campaign they argued that Scotland’s finances were healthier than those of the UK. It seems the SNP can say and do whatever it likes at the moment and face practically zero scrutiny – you can be certain that if Cameron or Miliband were doing premature victory laps like Salmond and Sturgeon currently are, they would be crucified for it.

As with the referendum, the response of much of the left is instructive as to what’s going on here. We are seeing countless think pieces which, rather than scrutinising the SNP, present them as offering a bloody nose to Westminster and even as synonymous with ‘Scotland’. This latter point is crucial as it’s something the SNP have been trying to do for a long time and, with the referendum, they seem to have succeeded to a large extent: witness the tweet at the top where, atop a mass flag-waving rally, a vote for the SNP is presented as a ‘vote for your country’. SNP success is uncritically presented as a ‘stronger voice for Scotland’ as if ‘Scotland’ is some unified whole with zero conflict or class division. We can note here that Scotland has gone so far down the nationalist rabbit hole that the other parties are dancing to this tune: witness this painful backdrop at a recent Scottish Labour event:

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The lack of scrutiny of the SNP (who are, lest we forget, the government responsible for most matters of daily interest in Scotland) is a symptom of a surge in nationalism which has turned politics on its head. The claims of UK-wide solidarity which the Scottish left made repeatedly during the referendum campaign are all but dead: a plurality of SNP voters would rather a Tory government than a Labour one if it meant more SNP MPs, a position shared by 34% of all voters in Scotland (with 21% not knowing). For all the talk of Green and Plaid Cymru alliances, there is no sense here of a UK-wide left, of shared goals (including of a Labour Party fit for purpose) which can be pursued wherever in the UK you may live. Instead the SNP are viewed as noble defenders of ‘Scotland’ against the evils of ‘Westmonster’, a narrative laid bare in the increasingly hysterical front pages of The National.

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The SNP’s rhetoric has been pitch-perfect in engorging Scottish nationalism while inflaming the English equivalent. Salmond knows exactly what he’s doing with assertions that he’ll ‘write Labour’s budget’ and there has been a concomitant rise in the rhetoric of English nationalism, with David Cameron and right-wing columnists playing up the ‘SNP wagging the Labour dog’ theme.

Of course, if it seems a no-brainer why many would have an issue with a party whose sole reason for existing is to break up the UK governing that same UK, no-one has told the Guardian left. They keep tickling the tummies, the myths keep growing and no-one must mention ‘nationalism’. In the process divisions grow ever wider and the left grows ever more insular. We’re going to be stuck here for a while.

For the author of the piece, Byron Sheldrick, the Labour Party, as constituted in 1918, has always been marked by a dichotomy between Parliamentarianism and labour, with Parliamentarianism – the centralised ideology of winning elections – undoubtedly in control of the party for the overwhelming majority of its existence…Byron Sheldrick describes an unhappy, atrophied organisation, suffering from a ‘profound lack of confidence and independence’ where one of the most notable characteristics is a ‘pathology to conform.’ 

A compelling, and timely, analysis of the modern Labour Party and its failure to offer any significant opposition or alternative to the neoliberal project. Timely because of this piece by David Miliband and Douglas Alexander and today’s TUC speech by Ed Balls. The former is neatly torn apart here – note also that it continues the “contemptuous put-downs” of Occupy referred to in the New Left Project piece. Miliband and Alexander were, of course, leading figures during the Blair/Brown years and their piece is a disingenuous obfuscation which can be summarised as ‘more of the same, please’. Indeed, the notion that we have anything to learn from American party politics is risible, it being the one developed country where inequality, social mobility, violence, imprisonment and mental illness are at their worst. Yet you will hear neither candidate for President facing this reality. In fact, the ‘left’ candidate pushes the notion of the:

fundamental American promise that, even if you don’t start out with much, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids.

Obama spoke of running for President because he saw this ‘basic bargain slipping away’ – yet social mobility in America has been all but dead for decades rather than being a product of the Bush era. This is the politics offered in America: two parties and two candidates positioning themselves on minutely different areas of a lie. It is ironic that Miliband/Alexander bemoan the fact that “the Republicans are so aggressively wrong on issues of gay rights, women’s rights and minority rights”, as these areas are the real battlegrounds of American politics, masking the truth that both parties offer subtly different takes on the same economic base of society. There are no grand competing visions, no real clash of ideologies – merely middle-managers squabbling over who can best manage the account book.

This is not to say that the United Kingdom has much to boast about with regards to these issues, but our politics can certainly boast more diversity and pluralism (not least because of devolution). Yet at Westminster, certainly, the ideological torpidity is remarkable. What is noticeable, however, is how this is almost entirely to be found on the ‘left’. The Conservative Party, in a coalition with the ostensibly left-leaning (at least in 2010) Liberal Democrats, wasted no time in pursuing an ideologically-driven programme which serves its natural interests. They have attacked the post-war consensus of the welfare state, National Health Service, comprehensive education and employment rights with a ferocity which would make Thatcher blush. Contrast this with Tony Blair in 1997 – despite a poll lead over the Tory government frequently reaching 20% or more in the preceding three years, Labour pledged to match their spending plans for their first 2 years in office. Despite two landslide elections in a row, Labour’s time in office was marked by a dogged conservatism, a fear of rocking the boat too much. From rail privatisation to anti-union legislation, much of the worst excesses of Thatcherism remained; with policies such as tuition fees, they went further than Thatcher had dared. Redistribution was attempted in the most hesitant, apologetic manner imaginable while rhetoric attacking asylum seekers and benefits claimants remained high on the agenda. This is undoubtedly the powerful influence of Parliamentarianism – of a party more interested in winning power than in meaningfully wielding it (and perceiving the path to power through the filter of a right-wing media.)

This brings us to Ed Ball’s speech today. Balls built his campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party around his belief that there was a real alternative to austerity. He argued that spending cuts actively harmed the recovery. He commented that we should:

be wary of any British economic policy-maker or media commentator who tells you that there is no alternative or that something has to be done because the markets demand it. 

Today, he told us that “we cannot make any commitments now that the next Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts”. He supported Osborne’s public sector pay freeze and warned against strikes, continuing the government’s own rhetoric blaming public sector recklessness and profligacy for the financial crisis. He also ruled out the hugely popular policy of rail renationalisation on the basis that it would cost ‘billions’ and that spending ‘on that scale’ would not be a priority when faced with a deficit (a claim tackled here). Yet Balls spoke of his desire for a Robin Hood tax – a policy which alone could raise £20 billion. Policies advocated by unions and groups like UK Uncut would pay to restore the cuts, renationalise the railway and more, still leaving many billions to pay towards the deficit. The fact is that these things are choices – always choices. Balls has done a complete 180 on his 2010 speech and now wants us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. 

Predictably, Balls spoke of ‘tough choices’. When a Labour politician uses this phrase, you can be certain they mean ‘policies which punish what should be our natural constituency’ – workers, the poor, the ordinary. There is nothing ‘tough’ about doggedly pursuing neoliberalism when it has undeniably failed around the world. There is nothing ‘tough’ in placing the burden for the financial crisis at the doors of society’s poorest while the rich continue to get richer. The ‘tough’ thing to do would be to break from this failed dogma and pursue a genuinely social democratic path. Indeed, Balls began his speech by praising the Olympics/Paralympics – yet in telling the gathered workers that there was no money left, wouldn’t the ‘tough’ (brave) thing to do have been to note that the £12-£24 billion of public money which went on these mega-events (much of it flowing into the coffers of private companies such as G4S and property developers) didn’t materialise from thin air? It was real money which could have been spent elsewhere. It was a choice to spend it on the Olympics in a time of austerity. It can be a choice to do things differently.

Ed Miliband was not elected as Labour leader because people wanted more of the same. He was always clearly less media-friendly than David Miliband. By continuing the uber-cautious path of being ‘The Tories, but nicer‘ he is inspiring absolutely no-one. It is not for nothing that his personal ratings reached their highest when he took on Murdoch over the phone-hacking scandal – a clear and decisive break from a previously unquestioned consensus. I’d argue that people want to be engaged and inspired by politicians again – they do not want to be patronised with the ‘there is no alternative’ lie. They know that there are always choices and they want to, are ready to, hear them. The chorus of boos for Cameron and Osbourne testify to that. On the strength of Balls’ speech today, however, Labour are far from ready to rise to the challenge – and the Labour Zombie will continue to stagger on ineffectually.

Social Democracy and the Labour Zombie

The Masses Against the Classes

As I have briefly touched on before, I am continually amazed by how many of my peers completely ignore or are completely ignorant of class. For my generation (and those that have followed) it is de rigueur to ascribe certain qualities of your personality or certain external events in your life to different aspects of your identity. Decades of misinformation (and downright propaganda) from our media (and larger culture) have rendered class invisible, a perceived irrelevance. It is not to be mentioned in polite company and speaking about it passionately and intelligently instantly marks you out as, at best, a naive relic (while it is not often verbalised, it’s clear that, at worse, mentioning class sees you painted as hopelessly bitter.) Even much of ‘the left’ will respond to its mention by trotting out that ever more meaningless insult, ‘Trot’.

Cultural theory, largely removed from any economic realm, is what’s fashionable these days. I use the phrase ‘fashionable’ deliberately as it is a grim irony that the worlds of media, marketing and fashion have been at the forefront of capitalist society’s efforts to strip the economic from the political and replace it with a post-modern sense that all is vanity. To speak to someone who works in these fields is typically to find someone who staggeringly believes that their work is beyond politics and their success is entirely down to their own qualities. Indeed, these industries thrive on pushing the notion that anyone can make it if they try. That we are the Kings and Queens of our own fates and our success or failure depends entirely on our personal efforts. There is, of course, absolutely no place for class in this narrative. No place for power, even for politics itself. Contact with the outside world will express itself as a series of fringe identity issues, for example ‘compassionate consumerism’ wherein ineffectual hand-wringing about sweatshops identifies you as someone who cares.

Mention of a ‘class war’ is, then, completely beyond the pale. It is no exaggeration that proposing this possibility generally results in your instant dismissal as a crazy person. A class war suggests one class using its power to protect or advance its position at the expense of another and how could this be in a world free of class?

Yet if we are to accept that class isn’t real we need different explanations as to why so much of our society is intrinsically linked to income (which plays a huge, but not solitary, role in class). As the first column linked to above indicates, educational attainment is still closely linked to class. This follows through into professional jobs, our legal system, our government, all areas where the higher income brackets are hopelessly over-represented. Lower income families account for a hugely out-of-proportion number of those in prison. A recent report linked the UK riots with deprivation. Obviously I am rattling through and simplifying here but the blunt links are there and undeniable. Social mobility is at a standstill and for every person who, against the odds, ‘escapes’ from their background there are countless more who do not, who cannot, who don’t even begin to think that they can.

So yes, I believe that class is real and, in a country where inequality is reaching levels worse than it has ever been it is more relevant than ever. Labour’s record on inequality wasn’t great by any means but, on the whole, it decreased poverty even while failing to tackle the rich becoming ever richer and ever more disconnected from society. Today we have a government which is actively redistributing wealth away from the poor to pay for more PFI (an expensive means of moving wealth from taxpayers into concentrated, private hands), ‘free schools’ and further subsidies for banks and businesses which are steadfastly failing to play their part in the coalition fantasy of the private sector rushing to the aid of the economy (after the state bailouts which prevented worldwide depression, you’d think they’d return the favour). This comes in seven days where the government announced its plans to tackle youth unemployment and the housing bubble by subsidising low wage employers and hawkish landlords. The Treasury’s own figures anticipate today’s policies pushing 100,000 further children into poverty. Unemployment is predicted to rise above the dreaded figure of 3 million, not seen since the dark days of Thatcher. Poverty in general is predicted to rise by millions in the next decade.

As you can see in this chart, a swift analysis of today’s measures saw the top income decile being affected most. However, this was largely due to Labour’s 50p tax rate which the government has several times indicated it wishes to scrap. Remove this from the picture and the changes are completely regressive, with the poorest being hit hardest (and, in any case, clearly a decline in net income of 1.5% affects the poorest far more than a decline of 2% affects the richest). Note that the curve rises upwards from the poorest so that the middle-classes are the least ‘hit’. This is classic class politics. The token gesture of hitting the richest by a few more fractions of a percentile enables the government to trumpet that everyone is ‘in it together’. Hitting the middle-class least protects their vote; even more so if the blame for it can be diverted to those who are being hit hardest. So it was that the government announced a headline benefits rise of over 5%. Cue many outraged comments that the feckless were being ‘rewarded’ for doing nothing while workers were being penalised. Of course the reality is that both groups are worse-off and those on benefits are hit harder in other ways, but many people won’t look beyond the headlines to realise this and their anger is directed away from those in power.

All of this is done under the guise of reducing a ‘deficit’ that was caused by a mendacious and greedy financial sector with the help of cowardly politicians (and anyone who still believes the lie that it was due to public spending should read this and this). Yet these people continue to accumulate wealth while public sector workers are given real term double-digit pay cuts and the government ‘consults’ on destroying further employment rights (the UK already suffers some of the worst employment rights in Europe). And the deficit is getting bigger! The political manipulation on display is breathtaking. 

You can see it too in the pensions dispute. The government’s own report anticipated public sector pension costs peaking around 2026 and then declining. Even at its peak, the cost never hits 2% of GDP. There has already been significant reform of public sector pensions over the past 15 years which has reduced their cost. Yet the government pushes the myth of an out-of-control pension bill and an intransigent, greedy public sector determined to hold onto unfair, outdated arrangements. Again, they play ordinary workers off against each other – rather than ask why their own pensions are so derisory, private sector workers are led to believe that dinner ladies are looking forward to living it up at their expense. It’s a myth that falls apart very quickly but in the face of a media largely owned by billionaire oligarchs, it is one that is rarely challenged. No wonder when, as I’ve noted above, our society is so geared towards the supremacy of individual effort? The guy in marketing earning £30,000 a year, he earned it. If a nurse is seeing her pay cut in real terms it’s probably her fault for not finding another job, right?

It is difficult not to believe that we are seeing a class war. The government refuses to countenance a Tobin tax or anything other than mild reform of the financial sector. The interests of those who caused, and benefited from, the financial crisis continue to be protected. Today has been the clearest indicator yet that the government is not only failing the majority of the country but actively attacking them and their interests, all under the guise of tackling a deficit that they are actually increasing.

Tomorrow sees the biggest strike in the UK in several generations. Everyone who cares about this country, who believes that it should be a fairer place with a sense of justice, should support it. We need to recognise our common enemy, neatly encapsulated in recent months in the term ‘the 1%’. This government is ensuring that your class, and your children’s class, will matter more than ever when it comes to dictating their lives. We need to recognise this, which means accepting the reality of class and the logic of class interests. It means accepting that there is such a thing as society and it plays a part in where we all end up in our lives. It means accepting that our individual effort only goes so far and our common destiny is far more important. This is the only way we can begin to even move towards a world where class truly does not matter.